Review of ‘Progressive and Regressive Politics in late Neoliberalism’ (2017) by Donatella della Porta, in: “The Great Regression” by Heinrich Geiselberger (edit.), e.g. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Some key topics have been dominating the culture of casual political discussion recently:
Donald Trump, Brexit, Populism and Islamophobia. These all summarise what daily newspaper articles and Facebook debates are about. The amount of low-quality input regarding these issues as well as the number of ill-informed people debating them is likely to make us become annoyed whenever these topics come up; we feel like we have read enough about them to have the capacity to analyse them – better than anyone else.
“The Great Regression”, edited by Heinrich Geiselberger, opens our minds again without
repeating too much of what has already been said. It introduces new examples, reminds us of theories we have once learnt and, finally, provides us with the right tools to respond to those analyses that strike us as wrong. The book was published simultaneously in 13 different languages and features articles by 15 authors, amongst them Zygmunt Bauman, Nancy Fraser, Bruno Latour and Slavoj Zizek. Today I want to introduce the article ‘Progressive and Regressive Politics in late Neoliberalism’ by Donatella della Porta.
In the introduction, the author draws our attention to the increasing appearance of anti-
globalisation movements from the left and the right political spectrum. We are taught to look at populist developments through the lenses of Neoliberalism to see the split between winners and losers of globalisation. This is neither a new nor a particularly controversial approach. But this is not the key point that della Porta wants to alert the reader to. She articulates Neoliberalism as a two-fold development, referring to political economist Karl Polanyi: we experience a wave of liberalising and privatising policies, followed by counter-movements that appeal to the restoration of social security. These counter-movements can be divided into two categories: the progressive and the regressive. This division and the analysis of these types of movements is the core and the biggest strength of della Porta’s article.
The progressive movements are, according to the author, characterised by extremely
heterogenous groups of people requiring pluralist structures. An example is the anti-austerity
movement, sometimes outlined as the ‘precariat’ that consists of people from various social
classes and groups and often includes people who went from originally being winners to
seeing themselves as losers of neoliberal politics. The “moral discourse” (p. 64) progressive
movements are trying to evoke often results in the demand of more direct democracy and state administration of common goods. ‘Social movements’, as della Porta calls them, have a tendency to cause profound change in the landscape of national parties (e.g. Podemos in
Spain), party-intern debates (e.g. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn) and international
organisations (e.g. Attac).
With this detailed explanation of progressive movements in mind, movements that are broadly supported, or at least accepted, della Porta now distinguishes what she calls regressive movements. Those are movements that face numerous intuitive objections by various people, some of which are in positions of authority. Many people argue against these movements on the basis of their contents, claiming that they are xenophobic, racist or sexist. However, della Porta shows that these intuitive objections can, moreover, be traced back to their inherent structure. Support by wealthy and powerful elites plays an important role (e.g. reactions of the stock market to Trump’s election; financial loopholes used by parties like the AfD in Germany, which offered its manifestos in the 2017 election for sale in order to enable donors to get money to the party via less restricted ways). Furthermore, personalised leadership dominates over pluralist citizens’ participation. Kenneth Roberts used these structural differences to differentiate between social movements (normally della Porta’s ‘progressive’ category) and populism (della Porta’s ‘regressive’ category).
Hence, many people, regardless of their position as winners or losers of globalisation, cannot sympathise with Trump’s objections to neoliberal developments. Visible evidence were the numerous post-electoral protests in several big cities throughout the US, involving people from all social backgrounds, some representing movements like Occupy. This is, to a large extent, due to the structure by which these statements came to the public: Mobilisation happened almost exclusively from the top to the bottom, and not the other way around. One does not have to agree with the use of the term Neofascism in order to accept this distinction. It also explains the international reoccurrence of xenophobic rhetoric from a non-ideological perspective. Being easy to understand and to use, this attitude towards everything ‘different’ is a convenient tool for the spread of populism from the top.
Donatella della Porta’s article is a good example of the book’s spirit: She does not attempt to
hide the academic pursuit of an open and democratic society. There is no doubt about what the writers deem to be the right way of dealing with the challenges of a globalised 21st century. This makes the book accessible for everyone – whether one wants a first scientific
introduction to the politics of the day or some inspiration to think beyond the limits of one’s
own academic field of interest. It inspires one to think and read about the theories mentioned
without being overly complicated or perfectionist.
While finding such direct positioning in the text, one sometimes wonders how selective della
Porta’s introduction of the relevant literature is: To what extent can we rely on her considering counter-perspectives on the analysis of structure and content of movements? The answer is, we cannot – but we also need not rely on it. The article tries to draw our attention to the existence of structural differences, not to their exact ontology. The book overall is to be understood as a deconstruction of those debates that we subconsciously view in a narrow window of foundationalism. We think we have understood the Trump phenomenon by saying that his characterisation of Mexican people is hardly a sufficient explanation for the crime rates in the United States, but we do not notice that we, in fact, stay entirely on the content level of discussion – which is, as della Porta shows, relatively superficial.
Finally, Donatella della Porta, together with the other 14 contributing authors, makes us aware of some famous and forgotten theories of political society and social change without being repetitive. It leaves one with the satisfying feeling of not having to trouble and agonise over that one reductionist newspaper anymore – not because its stated opinions are inferior, but simply because it does not address what “The Great Regression” manages to analyse: the structures and backgrounds instead of the mere content of political developments.